Good for the Dog; Good for You – Look for Help When Scared

Honey the Golden Retriever under sail boat.

I’d rather be in a sailboat than under one. This isn’t much fun.

Should I Be Scared?

You’ve probably seen this: A toddler, running through a playground, trips and falls. He looks up at his mom or dad. If they look concerned, he starts bawling. If they react mildly, he gets up and goes back to playing.

Your dog looks to you the same way.

If you’re nervous about something, she will be too. If you react calmly, her reaction will be milder.

I’ve seen it with Honey.

Dogs Look To Us For Courage

Luckily for Honey, I don’t startle easily. Whether it’s a neighbor tossing boxes off his porch two feet in front of us, sudden gunshots, or even banging my head on a low ceiling joist, I react little on the outside.

I’ve spotted Honey looking for my reaction when something strange happens around the house or out on a walk.

My calmness doesn’t eliminate her fears. After all, she is her own dog.

But I think it helps her recover faster when being startled.

Now, who should I look to when I get scared?

Scared? Get Out of Your Head (and Into Someone Else’s)

The problem with being a grown up is that we can make scary things even scarier just by thinking about them. But we can also look farther to find inspiration when we’re scared.

Mike and Honey and I are looking toward a future life aboard a sailboat.

The thought of selling all we own, finding a new way to support ourselves, and exposing ourselves to whatever nature dishes out is pretty scary.

So like a toddler or a dog who looks up to see if whoever they’re with is startled by the same thing that frights them, I look for role models who have done what we’re attempting. And then I say to myself, “If they can do it, we can too.”

I read a lot of books by cruising sailors. But one of the most compelling was Ocean to Cross: Daring the Atlantic, Claiming a New Life.

Liz and Peter Fordred had never sailed before. They lived in landlocked Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). They built their own sailboat and trucked it to South Africa, taking off as newbie sailors to cross the Atlantic from dangerous Cape Horn.

Oh, and did I mention they were both paraplegics?

Suddenly, taking off on a sailboat with my husband and dog doesn’t sound so scary.

Honey the Golden Retriever cleans out the peanut butter jar.

So this sailing business? Will it have peanut butter?

Fear is Important; But Not Too Important

Fear is normal for dogs. Fear is normal for humans. The challenge for both of us is to appreciate the benefits of fear (keeping us from doing stupid stuff to get us killed) while not being overwhelmed by it.

Once we find ourselves in fear’s grip, it’s very hard to break out of it. I’m not saying anything new to anyone who lives with a fearful dog.

Building a pup’s confidence is a slow and arduous process. It takes time to rebuild new pathways in the brain.

It also takes time for people to learn how to be brave. But it’s not going to happen without testing our courage a little at a time. And looking to others to see if we really have anything to be scared about.


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  1. This is so true! I’ve talked with owner/friends about just this topic…Trying a new thing together, like off-leash hiking in a safe location… as long as the owner remains calm the dog will too…But it’s hard sometimes for an owner to provide their dog with the trust needed…so dog ends up back on leash watching the others play… What I see in Gizmo and other dogs is that while they may run a bit ahead, they stop every couple of minutes, turn around and look back to make sure all is well…And with loud noises? I speak calmly, give some pats and tell him all is well…No need to exacerbate the situation…Calm behavior on my part is always better for my dog

  2. This was perfect for me because I’m a big scaredy cat! Also, Brooks is easily frightened and it is so sweet how, when he hears a loud noise or something falls, he comes running to us for comfort. I prefer being comfortable to venturing out and taking chances, yet I know it’s something I need to work on. I think you’ll have awesome adventures in your sailboat!

  3. Torrey is a big chicken when it comes to new stuff, see today’s post actually. I have to make her sit, be still, calm down, then we can usually resume what we were doing.

  4. What a wonderful thing to aspire to! Sailboating, not fear ha ha! I hope you do it.

  5. That’s some amazing feat that Liz and Peter accomplished. It’s great that they shared their story…I bet reading it really helped ease your own fears a lot. I’m a worrier by nature, so it is always an internal struggle not to let my worries overwhelm me in day to day life. I envy people who seem to go through life without a concern in the world.

  6. Wise.

    Silas is not a natural checker-in, more’s the pity. It’s something we’re working to teach him. I’ve also had to work on my reactions, because he and I do feed off each other in a bad way–he gets upset, which scares me, and then he can tell that I’m upset so something must be wrong.

  7. What a great post!

    We “rational adults” don’t spend enough time talking about what a real and honest thing fear is. I do agree, that though Honey is her own dog (as is Elka!), our reactions to things can help them recover…better? More quickly? Elka does look to me for things (most amusingly, if a stranger knows her name, or if somebody else gives her a cue [including my fiane!]), and I do try to give her a calm front to rely upon.

  8. Isn’t this the truth? Dogs and kids. Fear is passed on from the parent. Unhealthy fear. There’s not much my kids are afraid of. That’s not always good, for reasons you stated, healthy versus unhealthy fear, but life is about learning.

  9. Dogs are wonderful animals, yet some people are afraid of them because they may have had a bad experience. They are quite scary if you are scared. The best way to get over irrational fears is to meet them head-on.

  10. Horses are the same way – it’s amazing how they feed off of your emotions.


  11. I once turned a formerly fearful dog into an arrogant little bully. Maybe I went too far?

  12. Very true…change can make you frozen with fear of the un-known and just like you reassure your dog, as an adult its important to fill your mind with knowledge of what you are about to do and learn. Congratulations on your venture sailing. I had a friend who did just that, and they never looked back.